VON Visions: Stop Shouting and Start Communicating!
Imagine if we didn't have to use wires - we could just send a signal from anyplace to any other place. By 1864 James Clerk Maxwell described radio waves. By 1895 Marconi was sending "Hertzian Waves" several kilometers. Oscillating waves were a familiar concept. Alexander Graham Bell worked on the same principle in trying to put multiple signals on a single telegraph line but the mechanical tuning fork wasn't up to the task01-Apr-2005
Updated: 05-May-2005

if we didn't have to use wires - we could just send a signal from anyplace to any other place. By 1864 James Clerk Maxwell described radio waves. By 1895 Marconi was sending "Hertzian Waves" several kilometers. Oscillating waves were a familiar concept. Alexander Graham Bell worked on the same principle in trying to put multiple signals on a single telegraph line but the mechanical tuning fork wasn't up to the task.

The idea of a radio wave is fundamental. Light is just a very high frequency radio band and we have names for particular frequencies - we call them colors. Our eyes detect three primary colors - red, green and blue. Our brain synthesizes a full range of colors by mixing the signals. The brain then combines all of these cues and we perceive objects. We can be very sensitive to differences in color but we aren't confused if the colors are a bit off. We are often surprised when we compare a photograph to the original subject and find out how different the colors are. Color is just part of the information we use in order to communicate.

We can see the same redundancy when we talk. In one experiment, all of the low frequencies of speech were removed yet people were still able to understand what was being said. They then removed the high frequencies and just used the low frequencies and people still understood what was being said.

To be fair to the innovators in the 19th century, the idea of communicating using radio waves over a great distance was a major accomplishment and it changed the world. Because all radio waves share the same space, researchers had to figure out a way to sort the signal out; they made it work by inventing new devices and technologies. And it worked very well indeed. The Titanic sinking demonstrated the value and the importance of the radio. By 1920 commercial radio was a successful business. The word "radio" is used to mean the technology, the industry that uses the technology and the industry that creates the content. Today, "television" or, perhaps, Tellywood maintains this tradition of ambiguity.

Effective public policy is a victim of this confusion. We refer to the regimen of sharing the airwaves as "spectrum policy" and allocate frequency bands as if it were farmland but with far more restrictions on how the "property" is to be used, since it is considered to be a scarce resource and must serve the public good. In 1934 the Federal Radio Commission became the Federal Communications Commission as its mission shifted from managing technology to enforcing public (social) policy. The perceived scarcity is used to justify managing speech.

Policymakers and many technologists treat "radio" and "spectrum" as synonyms. You bring order to wireless communications by managing the use of the spectrum. The FCC is trying to reform spectrum policy. For example, an "owner" (as if you could own a frequency) will no longer be required to use the allocation for only one purpose. They can even share and swap their allocations. Recognizing the value of wireless communications, the allocations will be auctioned off rather than just assigned. This creates a new stakeholder - the governments which see a new source of revenue.

As the FCC's Bob Pepper has observed, the real innovation is happening in the junk frequencies which are blocked by moisture. They were worthless so those using these frequencies were left to fend for themselves without FCC protection. And Wi-Fi happened. Just as the IP protocol removed the scarcity in wired connectivity, the same approach is creating an abundance of capacity for wireless connectivity. As I've pointed out (in http://www.frankston.com/?name=SATNSFSSHS) the whole idea of using a single frequency is flawed. Even worse is having to shout so you can be heard in a single hop. WiFi is valuable because it carries packet traf- fic that's indifferent to wires-you can use fiber for distance and wireless for local communications. Without shouting you can be heard anywhere the world!

While everyone is worried about the Universal Service Fund which is threatened by VoIP, rural "broadband" is becoming widely available because of WISPs -Wireless ISPs. They don't have to ask permission and they don't have to risk bidding on spectrum.

In the US, willfully perpetuating a scarcity that justifies restricting speech and communications in general is a clear violation of the Constitution.

It's 2005 - why does my radio still say 1895?